Share This Article
It’s a new year and that means a fresh new set of laws are now official.
While most laws going into effect won’t have a major impact on the day-to-day lives of Baxter County residents, the state’s recent changes to how bail works have some local citizens concerned about potential overcrowding in Baxter County’s jail.
The “Protect Arkansas Act,” which went into effect on Jan. 1, is Arkansas’s latest attempt to address the state’s bail bond process and the constant churn of criminals making it quickly back out into the public after being arrested.
The act, which was signed into law by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders last year in April, places a new round of restrictions on criminals after they are released from prison, as well as putting an end to the practice of credit bonding.
Prior to the “Protect Arkansas Act” going into effect, bail bondsmen were able to float payment plans for arrested individuals, allowing them to get out of jail for a fraction of the required 10% of the bond amount that is typically required. The law now requires arrested individuals to put up the full 10% of the bond before being released back out onto the streets.
In addition to the bond changes, individuals convicted of the 18 most violent felonies in state code, including rape and capital murder, will have to serve the entirety of their sentences in prison. Those convicted of the state’s 53 lesser violent felony charges, including second-degree murder and sexual indecency with a child, will have to serve 85% of their sentence before being eligible for parole.
The act also adds post-release supervision in cases where the defendants are not already sentenced to the maximum for their offense. Those convicted of crimes that do not require the 100% or 85% maximum can expect to serve between 50% to 25% of their sentence.
While it’s still too early to tell if the new law will put a strain on Baxter County’s jailhouse, some local residents are still raising the question following the current back-and-forth power struggle between Governor Sanders and Arkansas Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Magness over increasing the number of beds in already overcrowded and understaffed prisons throughout the state.
Magness, a local Baxter County resident himself, is best known for his status as an Arkansas oil magnate and his long-running tenure in law enforcement as a Baxter County Sheriff Deputy. He is also a former Sheriff of Baxter County.
Current Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery, a strong proponent of the “Protect Arkansas Act,” said he does not see the bill putting a strain on the county’s jailhouse but does see it potentially putting a strain on other Sheriffs with larger populations and already overcrowded jailhouses.
“I am in favor of this law, I have never liked the fact that bonds could be financed,” Montgomery said in an interview with the Observer. “I don’t see that it’s going to create a problem for us. Our jail is not at capacity. Now, I do see that it could potentially create some issues with other Sheriffs whose jails are already full. The county’s in good financial shape. The jail is in financially good shape with the quarter-cent tax that funds the jail and because of the jail expansion. I just don’t see it being an issue.”
While the “Protect Arkansas Act” will keep violent criminals in jail longer, some opponents of the bill, like Jon Comstock of the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, are putting an emphasis on how the act will make it harder for poor people in Arkansas to receive the benefits of the presumption on innocence after being charged with a crime.
Arkansas is one of the recent Republican-led states to pass new bills aimed at making it harder for individuals to get out of prison after being arrested for breaking the law. Since the George Floyd riots of 2020, at least 14 Republican-led states – including Georgia, Indiana, Missouri and Wisconsin – have introduced new bills that focus on increasing non-bailable offenses and requiring judges to consider criminal records when setting bail.
Other states, often Democrat-led, such as New Mexico, New Jersey, and Kentucky, have gone in the other direction by nearly eliminating cash bail altogether, while expanding release programs and moving toward risk-based assessments to determine pretrial release.
In a public interview over the new changes, Comstock said the State Legislature took a punitive step backward instead of coming up with new ways to honor the rights of pretrial detainees. He said the result of the bill will be more poor people filling up county jail beds, leading to government calls to build more prisons as jails begin to overcrowd.
Taxpayers, he said, will be forced to foot the bill.
“What is frustrating is that the prohibition was enacted without any data that compared persons who posted the full 10% with those who were able to pay the fee over time,” Comstock said. “Nothing told the Legislature that the latter group was less likely to appear in court.”